Democracy Dies in Darkness

Asia & Pacific

McConnell once pushed sanctions against Myanmar. Now he’s blocking a new round. 

July 1, 2018 at 5:24 PM

Aung San Suu Kyi, center, is presented with a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 2012 as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) applauds. Behind them are Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state. McConnell has spent 25 years promoting human rights and democracy in Myanmar, but is now the principal senator holding up fresh legislation pressuring the country to improve its treatment of the Rohingya. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spent over a quarter century promoting human rights and democracy in Myanmar, is now the principal senator holding up fresh legislation pressuring the country to improve its treatment of the Rohingya.

McConnell (R-Ky.) was the architect of harsh economic sanctions against the former military junta, which were dropped in 2016. His current stance has surprised human rights advocates in Washington who once viewed the senator as their most powerful ally in regard to Myanmar, also known as Burma. They characterize him now as an obstructionist who remains loyal to Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi even as others sour on her over her response to the Rohingya crisis. 

“It is very surprising given Sen. McConnell’s history, and the seriousness of this crisis,” said a congressional staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “This is not on a small scale — this is ethnic cleansing.” 

An act calling for targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar military generals sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, and legislation with similar penalty language passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. House of Representatives in May. Both bills, people familiar with the negotiations say, are being obstructed by the majority leader. 

The Senate bill “has been blocked, according to all accounts, by the majority leader’s preference not to have that conversation about whether we should be enacting sanctions,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “I think it is a black mark on the U.S. Senate that we have not had that debate.” 

Though he says he is “deeply troubled” by the crisis in Myanmar, McConnell says he believes that any sanctions language coming from the Hill could undermine Suu Kyi’s government, a view supported by her advisers, who see the majority leader as among her only friends in Washington. His position is borne out of years-long loyalty and dedication to Suu Kyi as well as a sense that she is doing her best to manage a tense relationship with the military, those familiar with his thinking say. 

“Aung San Suu Kyi has worked her whole life to further democracy within Burma, and she remains the best hope for democratic reform in her country,” McConnell said in response to questions from The Washington Post. “The best hope for Burma to become a truly representative government — a long-standing interest of mine — is maintaining U.S. support for Aung San Suu Kyi.”

The tensions underscore how branches of the U.S. government are struggling to find a coherent response to the alleged atrocities in the country’s Rakhine state, which have sent 700,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. The European Union and Canada last week imposed sanctions on seven Myanmar generals who led the campaign against the Rohingya. The United States has punished just one so far, in December, though more — as many as eight — are likely to be added, according to Senate staff.

Officials in the administration believe it is important “to keep engaging Myanmar to prevent the country from slipping fully into China’s orbit” and are “courting Aung San Suu Kyi in the hopes of keeping some flicker of hope that the country might continue moving in the general direction of democracy,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“On the other side,” he said, “are people in Congress . . . who believe that the military’s treatment of the Rohingya was so despicable that those responsible should be held accountable and punished.” 

McConnell has been a supporter of Suu Kyi since the 1990s. In 2003 he successfully pushed through sanctions that banned military generals from obtaining visas, effectively limiting most American trade with Myanmar, and froze the generals’ assets in the United States. Because Myanmar was such a fringe issue at the time, McConnell wrote the legislation so it had to be renewed yearly, which would keep it on the radar of Washington and the media, according to a former Senate aide. 

“Every year, spring would come, and it would be Burma season,” the aide said. 

While under house arrest, Suu Kyi would speak to McConnell, fostering a relationship between the pair. Through her doctor, she smuggled a letter to the United States in 2002 thanking McConnell for his support — a letter that McConnell kept and framed. 

In early 2012, as Myanmar opened to the world, McConnell visited the country and the friend he had admired from afar. 

“It was really kind of emotional, frankly. And at the end of the meeting she said, ‘Can I kiss you?’ And I said absolutely, I don’t think my wife would mind,” he said in an interview with NPR after the trip. “It was a real emotional moment.”

A picture of that moment is displayed in one of the meeting rooms in the majority leader’s office on Capitol Hill. 

Later that year, Suu Kyi embarked on a whirlwind trip to the United States, visiting Myanmar communities and policymakers in Washington. Her one day of downtime was spent in Kentucky, where she visited a horse farm. She spoke at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisvilleand thanked the senator for his “consistent support.” 

As Myanmar held its first democratic elections in November 2015, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar at the time, Derek Mitchell, would send updates every three hours to two institutions in Washington — the White House and McConnell, according to Mitchell. The elections saw Suu Kyi come to power as the leader of the civilian government, but the military has maintained significant clout and is independent under Myanmar’s constitution, giving Suu Kyi little control over the force. 

 Suu Kyi has been widely criticized in Washington and across the world for a lack of leadership on the Rohingya issue. In a speech after the military campaign last August, she dismissed the allegations, saying the situation was less severe than the international community was making it out to be. Her government has restricted access to Rakhine state, including by nongovernmental organizations and the media.  

“I am sadly disappointed in her lack of leadership when it comes to the plight of the Rohingya people,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said on the Senate floor last October. “She claims she is committed to restoring peace and the rule of law. Yet, she has spoken of so-called allegations and counter-allegations instead of addressing widespread, well-documented abuses by her own country’s security forces.” 

McConnell was the only lawmaker to back Suu Kyi. After a phone call with her in September — the last time he’s spoken to her — he emphasized to his colleagues that she is “the same person as she was before” and called their criticisms “unfounded.” 

Read more:

Related: Myanmar fires general who led Rohingya campaign

Related: U.N. signs deal with Myanmar to resettle refugees, but no one knows what’s in it

Related: Monsoon begins to take effect in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh

Related: Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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Shibani Mahtani is the Southeast Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, covering countries that include the Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia. She joined the Post's foreign desk in 2018 after seven years as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Southeast Asia and later in Chicago, where she covered the Midwest.

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